“Zootopia”: Taking a political stand with talking animals

Meet Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin). She’s a bunny with a mission—one that her parents and the rest of the animals living in the sprawling city of Zootopia would call impossible. Hopps wants to be the first police officer of her kind, bringing justice to the seemingly harmonious metropolis. She has no plans to spend the rest of her life growing and selling carrots like the rest of the bunnies of Bunnyburrow. “Keeping things the same,” her parents call it.

Yes, on the surface, Zootopia, directed by Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) is yet another talking animal movie for kids. However, you would never expect this lighthearted children’s fantasy to tackle everything from outright sexism to institutional racism in just less than two hours, without failing to elicit laughter from both parents and kids. It’s clear that Hopps defies cultural norms when she ends up as the top student at the Zootopia Police Academy, an institution reserved for the more “able” animals of society. Think polar bears and rhinos: predators, who are, for the sake of the matter, all male.

Hopps faces reality when she is placed on parking duty by Zootopia police chief Bogo, a hard-ass buffalo voiced by Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation, The Wire). Turns out the mayor’s new mammal-inclusion initiative isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Unappreciated and ignored, Hopps takes things into her own paws, uncovering the dirty secrets of Zootopia’s not-so-integrated society.

Here, another plotline unfolds in which Zootopians discover the faultiness of their predator vs. prey logic—the logic that prohibits bunnies from mingling with polar bears. The societal divide between traditionally predatory and preyed-upon animals is said to be biological (sound a little like your introduction to cultural anthropology class?) Hopps and her partners in crime prove to audience members that this is untrue, uncovering a crime involving corrupt politicians and an illegal drug that’s making animals “go savage.”

The racial element is drawn out even further in Hopps’s unlikely friendship with a fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). Their relationship is strained because Zootopian society always says, “Never trust a fox.” Wilde’s character development reveals facets of the suffering that can come from harmful societal expectations. He says to Hopps, “Everyone comes to Zootopia, thinking they could be anything they want. But you can’t. You can only be what you are. Sly fox. Dumb bunny.”

Zootopia is also notable for the dimensions of its humor. It includes references to The Godfather and L.A. Confidential and maintains a healthy balance of animal-related puns. The film pokes fun at some of the typical parts of living in a city—one scene shows a DMV with a staff of sloths. Another great part involves Hopps and Wilde entering the Mystic Spring Oasis, a haven for animals who wish to live peacefully in the nude (a.k.a. a nudist colony).

According to movie critic Peter Travers, “[Zootopia] may be the most subversive movie of the year” (Rolling Stone). It’s true: what makes for a classic kids movie is also quite the political statement. You’ll be at the edge of your seat, you’ll laugh, and most likely, you’ll cry. This is the perfect feel-good movie that takes some serious dives, preventing it from becoming too cheesy or predictable. It’s still playing at Flagship Cinemas for $7, so catch it while you can.